The Naturalist: Planetary show 'stars' Jupiter and Saturn

Jupiter and Saturn are shining brightly in the autumn sky.

Jupiter and Saturn are shining brightly in the autumn sky.

Woodcock Nature Center / Contributed photo

All through my life the stars have fascinated me. Looking up on a clear night and seeing the infinite number of stars in the sky is both humbling and inspiring. It’s not only the stars that can be found in our skies: Depending on the time of year we can also see the planets with which we share our solar system.

Two planets that put on a good show now are Jupiter and Saturn. Look to the southern part of the sky and you will see two bright “stars” relatively close to each other. The planets stand out more than the stars around them even when there is a lot of moonlight because they are many times closer to Earth. This makes them relatively easier to find. Jupiter looks a little bigger than the surrounding stars and Saturn has a bluish hue. If you are fortunate to be in an area with little light pollution, you will see the Milky Way as their backdrop.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system but does not have the conditions needed to support life. It is a gas giant, meaning it lacks a solid surface. The gas is made of mostly hydrogen and helium, similar to the makeup of stars, but Jupiter is too small to burn like a star. Its days are very short — about 10 Earth hours — but its year is very long, about 12 Earth years. People also talk a lot about the Great Red Spot, which is a storm the size of the Earth which has been going on for over 100 years!

Saturn is also a gas giant, easily recognizable by its eye-catching rings. Saturn’s day is about 10 to 11 Earth hours long. A Saturn year is even longer than Jupiter’s — about 29 Earth years. Saturn is about 9.5 times farther from the sun than Earth is, at a distance of 886 million miles. Both Saturn and Jupiter have moons that might have conditions to support life.

Take a moment to look at the sky and find Jupiter and Saturn. They really do stand out among the stars!


Sam Nunes is an environmental educator at the Woodcock Nature Center.